Cosla head slams 'populist' and 'unhelpful' targets

18th March 2011 at 00:00
`Myths' surrounding structural reform taken on by Mair

The chief executive of the local authority umbrella organisation, Cosla, has made an unprecedented attack on national politicians' "populist" but "unhelpful" targets, such as teacher numbers and class sizes.

Rory Mair told Cosla's annual conference last week: "Given all we know now, is there anyone who really believes that the education of our young people can be reduced to the question of whether we have 53,000 teachers, or that the success of our early years in primary depends on class sizes of 18?"

Education Secretary Michael Russell warned Cosla last month (TESS, 25 February), that failure to make its case on school management would mean that its case would not "carry the day".

Mr Mair picked up that challenge last week, claiming it was a "myth" that structural reform of local government was ever likely to be a major part of the solution to the problems faced by the public sector.

Since 1980 there had been 20 major structural reforms in the UK public sector - none had been delivered in the timescales or costs originally suggested; none had delivered the financial savings they were designed to; and all had involved the diversion of managerial effort to such an extent that services affected moved backwards, not forwards.

Even in the private sector, recent evidence suggested 80 per cent of mergers added no value whatsoever and 30-50 per cent may actually destroy value, said Mr Mair.

Councils should focus on integrating services using all the levers of reform rather than "just the ones that look dynamic and populist".

In a speech littered with references to "inputs" and "outcomes", that was essentially a defence of Cosla's support for non-ring-fenced budgets and integrated services, Mr Mair warned that the coming weeks and months would see national politicians making an attack on the "outcomes approach" which would be "varied, sustained and aggressive" and also "likely to be disingenuous".

Parliamentarians liked ring-fencing because it gave some semblance that they were allocating a specific amount of money to specific services, he said.

There was therefore "a real possibility that party manifestos will be full of populist-looking but largely unhelpful input commitments", he predicted.

The danger of input measures was that they "force us to care more about how many Highers a child gets" than how supportive the education system was of the final destinations that young person might choose.

"National politicians will look for something that is quick, appears to be dynamic and will attract populist attention," said Mr Mair.

PRE-ELECTION PLEDGES

- First Minister Alex Salmond: no compulsory public sector redundancies

- Education Secretary Michael Russell: halve the number of pupils in sub- standard school buildings

- Education Secretary Michael Russell: continue the drive for smaller class sizes, particularly in early years

- Scottish Labour leader Iain Gray: a Labour government would not introduce any upfront fees or graduate contribution for access to higher education

- Scottish Labour leader Iain Gray: a guaranteed apprenticeship for every suitably-qualified young person who wants one

elizabeth.buie@tes.co.uk.

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